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WE have been along the Boulevard de la République and then the Avenue Gambetta, and now we are debouching into the Place du Commerce. The nails in our polished boots ring on the pavements of the capital. It is fine weather, and the shining sky glistens and flashes as if we saw it through the frames of a greenhouse; it sets a-sparkle all the shop-fronts in the square. The skirts of our well-brushed greatcoats have been let down, and as they are usually fastened back, you can see two squares on the floating lappets where the cloth is bluer.
Our sauntering party halts and hesitates for a moment in front of the Café de la Sous-Préfecture, also called the Grand-Café.
"We have the right to go in!" says Volpatte.
"Too many officers in there," replies Blaire, who has lifted his chin over the guipure curtains in which the establishment is dressed up and risked a glance through the window between its golden letters.
"Besides," says Paradis, "we haven't seen enough yet."
We resume our walk and, simple soldiers that we are, we survey the sumptuous shops that encircle the Place du Commerce; the drapers, the stationers, the chemists, and--like a General's decorated uniform--the display of the jeweler. We have put forth our smiles like ornaments, for we are exempt from all duty until the evening, we are free, we are masters of our own time. Our steps are gentle and sedate; our empty and swinging hands are also promenading, to and fro.
"No doubt about it, you get some good out of this rest," remarks Paradis.
It is an abundantly impressive city which expands before our steps. One is in touch with life, with the life of the people, the life of the Rear, the normal life. How we used to think, down yonder, that we should never get here!
We see gentlemen, ladies, English officers, aviators-recognizable afar by their slim elegance and their decorations--soldiers who are parading their scraped clothes and scrubbed skins and the solitary ornament of their engraved identity discs, flashing in the sunshine on their greatcoats; and these last risk themselves carefully in the beautiful scene that is clear of all nightmares.
We make exclamations as they do who come from afar: "Talk about a crowd!" says Tirette in wonder. "Ah, it's a wealthy town!" says Blaire.
A work-girl passes and looks at us. Volpatte gives me a jog with his elbow and swallows her with his eyes, then points out to me two other women farther away who are coming up, and with beaming eye he certifies that the town is rich in femininity--"Old man, they are plump!" A moment ago Paradis had a certain timidity to overcome before he could approach a cluster of cakes of luxurious lodging, and touch and eat them; and every minute we are obliged to halt in the middle of the pavement and wait for Blaire, who is attracted and detained by the displays of fancy jumpers and caps, neck-ties in pale blue drill, slippers as red and shiny as mahogany. Blaire has reached the final height of his transformation. He who held the record for negligence and grime is certainly the best groomed of us all, especially since the further complication of his ivories, which were broken in the attack and had to be remade. He affects an off-hand demeanor. "He looks young and youthful," says Marthereau.
We find ourselves suddenly face to face with a toothless creature who smiles to the depth of her throat. Some black hair bristles round her hat. Her big, unpleasant features, riddled with pock-marks, recalls the ill-painted faces that one sees on the coarse canvas of a traveling show. 'She's beautiful,'' says Volpatte. Marthereau. at whom she smiled, is dumb with shock.
Thus do the poilus converse who are suddenly placed under the spell of a town. More and more they rejoice in the beautiful scene, so neat and incredibly clean. They resume possession of life tranquil and peaceful, of that conception of comfort and even of happiness for which in the main houses were built.
"We should easily get used to it again, you know, old man, after all!"
Meanwhile a crowd is gathered around an outfitter's shop-window where the proprietor has contrived, with the aid of mannikins in wood and wax, a ridiculous tableau. On a groundwork of little pebbles like those in an aquarium, there is a kneeling German, in a suit so new that the creases are definite, and punctuated with an Iron Cross in cardboard. He holds up his two wooden pink hands to a French officer, whose curly wig makes a cushion for a juvenile cap, who has bulging, crimson cheeks, and whose infantile eye of adamant looks somewhere else. Beside the two personages lies a rifle bar-rowed from the odd trophies of a box of toys. A card gives the title of the animated group--"Kamarad!"
"Ah, damn it, look!"
We shrug our shoulders at sight of the puerile contrivance, the only thing here that recalls to us the gigantic war raging somewhere under the sky. We begin to laugh bitterly, offended and even wounded to the quick in our new impressions. Tirette collects himself, and some abusive sarcasm rises to his lips; but the protest lingers and is mute by reason of our total transportation, the amazement of being somewhere else.
Our group is then espied by a very stylish and rustling lady, radiant in violet and black silk and enveloped in perfumes. She puts out her little gloved hand and touches Volpatte's sleeve and then Blaire's shoulder, and they instantly halt, gorgonized by this direct contact with the fairy-like being.
"Tell me, messieurs, you who are real soldiers from the front, you have seen that in the trenches, haven't you?"
"Er--yes--yes " reply the two poor fellows, horribly frightened and gloriously gratified.
"Ah!" the crowd murmurs, "did you hear? And they've been there, they have!"
When we find ourselves alone again on the flagged perfection of the pavement, Volpatte and Blaire look at each other and shake their heads.
"After all," says Volpatte, "it is pretty much like that you know!"
"Why, yes, of course!"
And these were their first words of false swearing that day.
* * * * * *
We go into the Café de l'Industrie et des Fleurs. A roadway of matting clothes the middle of the floor. Painted all the way along the walls, all the way up the square pillars that support the roof, and on the front of the counter, there is purple convolvulus among great scarlet poppies and roses like red cabbages.
"No doubt about it, we've got good taste in France," says Tirette.
"The chap that did all that had a cartload of patience," Blaire declares as he looks at the rainbow embellishments.
"In these places," Volpatte adds, "the pleasure of drinking isn't the only one."
Paradis informs us that he knows all about cafés. On Sundays formerly, he frequented cafés as beautiful as this one and even more beautiful. Only, he explains, that was a long time ago, and he has lost the flavor that they've got. He indicates a little enameled wash-hand basin hanging on the wall and decorated with flowers: "There's where one can wash his hands." We steer politely towards the basin. Volpatte signs to Paradis to turn the tap, and says, "Set the waterworks going!"
Then all six of us enter the saloon, whose circumference is already adorned with customers, and install ourselves at a table.
"We'll have six currant-vermouths, shall we?"
"We could very easily get used to it again, after all," they repeat.
Some civilians leave their places and come near us. They whisper, "They've all got the Croix de Guerre, Adolphe, you see------"--"Those are real poilus!"
Our comrades overhear, and now they only talk among themselves abstractedly, with their ears elsewhere, and an unconscious air of importance appears.
A moment later, the man and woman from whom the remarks proceeded lean towards us with their elbows on the white marble and question us: "Life in the trenches, it's very rough, isn't it?"
"Er--yes----well, of course, it isn't always pleasant."
"What splendid physical and moral endurance you have! In the end you get used to the life, don't you?"
"Why, yes, of course, one gets used to it--one gets used to it all right "
"All the same, it's a terrible existence--and the suffering!" murmurs the lady, turning over the leaves of an illustrated paper which displays gloomy pictures of destruction. "They ought not to publish these things, Adolphe, about the dirt and the vermin and the fatigues! Brave as you are, you must be unhappy?"
Volpatte, to whom she speaks, blushes. He is ashamed of the misery whence he comes, whither he must return. He lowers his head and lies, perhaps without realizing the extent of his mendacity: "No, after all, we're not unhappy, it isn't so terrible as all that!"
The lady is of the same opinion. "I know," she says, "there are compensations! How superb a charge must be, eh? All those masses of men advancing like they do in a holiday procession, and the trumpets playing a rousing air in the fields! And the dear little soldiers that can't be held back and shouting, 'Vive la France!' and even laughing as they die! Ah! we others, we're not in honor's way like you are. My husband is a clerk at the Préfecture, and just now he's got a holiday to treat his rheumatism."
"I should very much have liked to be a soldier," said the gentleman, "but I've no luck. The head of my office can't get on without me."
People go and come, elbowing and disappearing behind each other. The waiters worm their way through with their fragile and sparkling burdens--green, red or bright yellow, with a white border. The grating of feet on the sanded floor mingles with the exclamations of the regular customers as they recognize each other, some standing, others leaning on their elbows, amid the sound of glasses and dominoes pushed along the tables. In the background, around the seductive shock of ivory balls, a crowding circle of spectators emits classical pleasantries.
"Every man to his trade, mon brave," says a man at the other end of the table whose face is adorned with powerful colors, addressing Tirette directly; "you are heroes. On our side, we are working in the economic life of the country. It is a struggle like yours. I am useful--I don't say more useful than you, but equally so."
And I see Tirette through the cigar-smoke making round eyes, and in the hubbub I can hardly hear the reply of his humble and dumbfounded voice--Tirette, the funny man of the squad!--"Yes, that's true; every man to his trade."
Furtively we stole away.
* * * * * *
We are almost silent as we leave the Café des Fleurs. It seems as if we no longer know how to talk. Something like discontent irritates my comrades and knits their brows. They look as if they are becoming aware that they have not done their duty at an important juncture.
"Fine lot of gibberish they've talked to us, the beasts!" Tirette growls at last with a rancor that gathers strength the more we unite and collect ourselves again.
"We ought to have got beastly drunk to-day!" replies Paradis brutally.
We walk without a word spoken. Then, after a time, "They're a lot of idiots, filthy idiots," Tirette goes on; "they tried to cod us, but I'm not on; if I see them again," he says, with a crescendo of anger, "I shall know what to say to them!"
"We shan't see them again," says Blaire.
"In eight days from now, p'raps we shall be laid out," says Volpatte.
In the approaches to the square we run into a mob of people flowing out from the Hôtel de Ville and from another big public building which displays the columns of a temple supporting a pediment. Offices are closing, and pouring forth civilians of all sorts and all ages, and military men both young and old, who seem at a distance to be dressed pretty much like us; but when nearer they stand revealed as the shirkers and deserters of the war, in spite of being disguised as soldiers, in spite of their brisques. [note 1]
Women and children are waiting for them, in pretty and happy clusters. The commercial people are shutting up their shops with complacent content and a smile for both the day ended and for the morrow, elated by the lively and constant thrills of profits increased, by the growing jingle of the cash-box. They have stayed behind in the heart of their own firesides; they have only to stoop to caress their children. We see them beaming in the first starlights of the street, all these rich folk who are becoming richer, all these tranquil people whose tranquillity increases every day, people who are full, you feel. and in spite of all, of an unconfessable prayer. They all go slowly, by grace of the fine evening, and settle themselves in perfected homes, or in cafés where they are waited upon. Couples are forming, too, young women and young men, civilians or soldiers, with some badge of their preservation embroidered on their collars. They make haste into the shadows of security where the others go, where the dawn of lighted rooms awaits them; they hurry towards the night of rest and caresses.
And as we pass quite close to a ground-floor window which is half open, we see the breeze gently inflate the lace curtain and lend it the light and delicious form of lingerie--and the advancing throng drives us back, poor strangers that we are!
We wander along the pavement, all through the twilight that begins to glow with gold--for in towns Night adorns herself with jewels. The sight of this world has revealed a great truth to us at last, nor could we avoid it: a Difference which becomes evident between human beings, a Difference far deeper than that of nations and with defensive trenches more impregnable; the clean-cut and truly unpardonable division that there is in a country's inhabitants between those who gain and those who grieve, those who are required to sacrifice all, all, to give their numbers and strength and suffering to the last limit, those upon whom the others walk and advance, smile and succeed.
Some items of mourning attire make blots in the crowd and have their message for us, but the rest is of merriment, not mourning.
"It isn't one single country, that's not possible," suddenly says Volpatte with singular precision, "there are two. We're divided into two foreign countries. The Front, over there, where there are too many unhappy, and the Rear, here, where there are too many happy."
"How can you help it? It serves its end--it's the background--but afterwards ----"
"Yes, I know; but all the same, all the same, there are too many of them, and they're too happy, and they're always the same ones, and there's no reason--"
"What can you do?" says Tirette.
"So much the worse," adds Blaire, still more simply.
"In eight days from now p'raps we shall have snuffed it!" Volpatte is content to repeat as we go away with lowered heads.
[note 1] See p. 122. [note 2]